The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), a poem T.S. Eliot had drafted by the age of 23, he adopted the voice of a weary middle-aged man, or indeed a damned soul from Dante’s Inferno. The balding Prufrock finds in an appointment for tea with some fashionable ladies the occasion for existential suffering. On his way to this social event, he continually postpones asking the “overwhelming question,” presumably some sort of proposal to the lady who will be entertaining him. Instead, he asks himself a series of questions that, while not the overwhelming question itself, do reflect his deepening anxiety: “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”; “So how should I presume?”; “And how should I begin?” Convinced that he already knows what suffering awaits him—“For I have known them all already, known them all”—he decides that, although as indecisive as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he has none of Hamlet’s greatness. He will not ask the overwhelming question, for fear that she will answer “That is not what I meant at all / That is not it at all.” Instead, he accepts the onslaught of old age and decides that no romance awaits him:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

The poem demonstrates some of the modern qualities that attracted Pound to Eliot: his mastery of the rhythms of conversation, which he gave form in verse, his colloquialisms, witty use of rhyme, and allusions to Dante, Shakespeare and other writers. Although the poem does not reflect the war experience, having been written in 191011, Eliot’s early poetry suggests the direction in which modernist poetry would move during and after the war: towards the exploration of the divided consciousness, the theme that Eliot and Pound both associated with Henry James.[1]

  1. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 120-121.